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Author Kate DiCamillo's new book for children is all about healing

Author Kate DiCamillo's trademark includes a strong voice, humor, and a tinge of sadness. But her latest book, ‘Ferris’, is a departure, and tells the story of a happy family

Kate DiCamillo (left) and cover art for her latest book 'Ferris'
Kate DiCamillo (left) and cover art for her latest book 'Ferris' (AP)

Children's writer Kate DiCamillo is known for beloved stories like The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn-Dixie, about kids and animals trying to navigate the world and make emotional connections. Her trademarks include a strong voice, humor, and a tinge of sadness. But her latest book, Ferris, is a departure, and a surprise even for DiCamillo — the story of a happy family.

"People have opened their hearts to me. It’s been this long, beautiful kind of thing, where I have been able to let myself be loved because of the stories. So now I can write a story that is all love,” says DiCamillo. 

Ferris, out this week, still has many hallmarks of a DiCamillo story — small town simplicity, the slow pace of a hot summer, a trusted best friend, and an adorable dog with a freakishly high emotional I.Q. Most of DiCamillo’s books teach life lessons through humor and common experience, but characters also deal with loss, grief and loneliness. DiCamillo says she didn’t recognise those themes until fans pointed them out.

“I would hear ‘the books are dark,’ and it would always surprise me because I would think the books are funny. Or the books are just telling the truth about what it’s like to be here, which is, it’s really hard to be here. And it’s also beautiful here," says 59-year-old DiCamillo.

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The Newbery Medal winner has 44 million books in print worldwide, translated into 41 languages, and many have been adapted for the stage and screen. Yet self-deprecating to a fault, DiCamillo claims she often thinks her first drafts are “terrible” but has faith they’ll improve.

DiCamillo's human characters are usually 8- to 10-years-old and when fans wonder how she gets inside the mind of a child so authentically she says her 8-year-old self is still very present in her heart. Her newest character, Ferris Wilkey (nicknamed after her mother gave birth to her next to the Ferris wheel at the state fairgrounds), is heading into fifth grade and adores Grandma Charisse, but senses she’s not well.

“You’re aware of everything and you haven’t gone over into cynicism yet,” DiCamillo says of that age. ”She’s seen the world, and is so open to all the magic of it and also seeing ... people that you love can get sick.”

Ferris has her own room, two parents, and an extended family who demonstrate their love, creating a safe and happy home. DiCamillo says she got the idea for the story after a close family friend gave birth to a daughter and was surrounded by love when she brought the baby home. “I just had this thing of like, what if I wrote a book about a kid who was absolutely, positively loved from the second that she came into the world?” DiCamillo said.

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DiCamillo suffered trauma as a child, and has only recently shared that her father was verbally abusive, manipulative, and threatening, creating a “terrifying” environment at home. She says therapy and some closure around her father’s death in 2019 have helped her heal.

Connecting with kids and adults through her books has also led to this more secure place. DiCamillo says writing has helped her work through her emotions and Ferris is evidence of that.

Bestselling novelist Ann Patchett calls DiCamillo a “beautiful writer” and says once she discovered her books, she couldn’t put them down. “It's her willingness to engage and her willingness always to talk about what kids need,” says Patchett.

DiCamillo had long admired Patchett and now the two are close friends who read each other’s work in progress.

Patchett — who owns a bookstore in Nashville — says just because DiCamillo’s books are aimed at children, doesn’t mean adults should miss out. She often recommended DiCamillo’s books during the pandemic when people were having trouble concentrating. “I was like … read these books because you can have the whole experience of a giant, very important piece of American literature, but you can finish it in two hours. And people were incredibly comforted by that fact and by the books themselves.”

When she’s not writing, DiCamillo travels around the country meeting kids and reading to them. The author receives hundreds of fan letters from kids and she reads and answers each one.

She says her biggest inspirations growing up and today are people who read aloud to children. She vividly remembers her mother buying her books, reading to her, and taking her to the library. “And I remember my second-grade teacher reading aloud. We read novel after novel every day after lunch,” says DiCamillo, tearing up. “I think, boy, if it mattered that much to me, a kid who was getting it lots of other places … I think it can change lives.”

Ferris is DiCamillo’s 34th book and she has two more coming out later this year. She’s also working on a collection of fairytales. Patchett calls DiCamillo “freakishly hardworking.” “No matter what, she gets up in the black hours of the earliest dawn and goes to work,” adds Patchett.

DiCamillo says she's honored about her place in readers' lives. “I feel like it’s the greatest gift in the world because I’m a reader myself and I know, how books have saved me,” she says. “I say to kids sometimes … most of the time we’re never even going to meet, but still we know each other because of those stories, you know? It’s a miraculous thing to me.”

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